HBCUs: An open letter to parents considering sending your children to an HBCU

22 Mar


Back when I graduated from Central State University in the 1970s integration had not yet made raids on black faculty and high achieving black students. It was also a time of heightened awareness of being black, so a lot of us went to HBCUs ( Historically Black Colleges and Universities) because they were predominantly black schools. Some students and parents still select HBCUs for the same reason, but particularly because of the size and offerings of some of the smaller, lesser known schools, they are also chosen for their liberal admission standards.

When I was a CSU student our professors were tenured, they published, they conducted research, one of my science teachers worked with Fermi in Chicago, my history professor co-authored the textbook I taught of when I graduated and began teaching, etc. There were national and internationally known scholars on the faculty and highly skilled and highly accomplished people working in student affairs. They were for the most part, in the late 70s and early 80s when colleges decided they needed black students for money and diversity sucked off to teach at more well funded white institutions.

Now,as at most black colleges, I do not believe there is any such thing as tenure at CSU, and while there are still a few stars shining in the faculty and staff they are for the most part getting quite old and soon to leave. As far as I know there is no requirement to do research or to have published, two of the traditional requirements for college teaching besides a PhD. I feel comfortable in saying that too many of the professors at most HBCUs would not employed beyond the adjunct category at most PWIs ( Predominantly White Institutions) of any size and reputation. This is just one of the ways in America we continue the miseducation of black folks ( apologies to Carter Woodson).

First we sentence many of them to low performing, badly staffed, frequently with decaying infrastructure K-12 schools that rarely offer instruction in either science or math by people who majored in those subjects, and then we blame their lack of performance on standardized tests on the children or their parents. With their low grade averages some of them are accepted at HBCUs in desperate need of students. The schools in the South usually do better in attracting students, but there are more black people in many of the Southern states. As more and more opportunities opened up to black college students in the 70s and 80s many choose to go to  PWIs.

In 2016 America the jobs you can get with just a bachelor’s degree are not that many or that lucrative. If you get a teaching certificate in most states, for example,  you have to get a master’s degree to keep teaching. The jobs you could get with a high school diploma thirty years ago now required a bachelors in many cases, the ones that required a bachelors now require a masters and the ones that required a masters now require a PhD. Without learning to write effectively and at least do basic research you are going to have a hard time even in an education grad school. If you are trying for a graduate degree in most fields it will be even harder. The new economy depends on STEM ( Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) and on service. Manufacturing jobs are no more. Although education is in high demand for k-12 teachers the myth that blacks now have much broader opportunities ( some blacks do, but not most) and even more damaging, that education is not for black people, has made black educators increasingly thin on the ground. A factor that leads to all kinds of problems in our public schools which are getting to  be more of color as the teaching and administrative staff gets whiter and white.  For example, most educational research conducted about the achievement gap focuses on finding out what is wrong with the student, not what is wrong with the instruction. But, for whatever reason many of our HBCUs are de-emphasizing or even abandoning their education departments, something I consider a serious mistake.

So. If you are sending your child to an HBCU, or thinking of doing so, here are some questions you should ask and things you should do:

1. Google the President. If there is not a strong academic, not just administrative, record that you can easily find, publications, presentations, lectures, etc. pass on that institution. It is being run by a bean counter. A lot of the white schools are too as we have made the unfortunate shift to treating colleges as businesses before educational institutions, but they can afford it. Considering the usual gaps in  k-12 education you need a prez who knows about black education and has published something indicating they do or at least presented on the topic frequently at national conferences. Do the same with his/her cabinet. Far too often they are just people who are considered “ good enough” for black schools.
2. Research the faculty. What are their degrees in and where are they from? Have they published? Presented? What is the evidence of their scholarship? You cannot teach what you do not know. Ask how many or what percentage of their classes are taught by adjuncts. What requirements are in place for adjuncts—can you teach there with a masters degree and as a first time faculty member? Ask them to see the materials for faculty orientation, for adjunct orientation. Ask how long faculty stay on average including adjuncts. In my experience sometimes adjuncts at HBCUs are thrown into classrooms with little or no preparation with unfortunate results for all concerned. Because they are not permanent employees of the institutions there is little that can be done if they do a bad job besides not hiring them again, and that does not ameliorate the damage already done.
3. What kind of bridge or remedial programs do they offer if students need them? Particularly with the new emphasis on STEM when most inner city and rural schools do not offer higher level math and science taught by people who majored in those subjects there is going to need to be some attention paid to filling in some gaps. Be wary of too much of this promised, however and check to make certain they are not no credit classes or your student will end up at the end of a few semesters with no credits and therefore no eligibility for financial aid.
4. Ask the graduation rate. That should, perhaps, be first question . If it is beneath 50%, run!  There are reasons kids do not graduate from a college and it is not because they are dumb or lazy.( Only four black HBCUs: Hampton, Howard, Spelman and Moorehouse have more than a fifty percent graduation rate) . The average college graduation rate among people starting a bachelor’s at all colleges is 57% for public colleges and 65% for private colleges. My alma mater, CSU , in the most recent data I could find had a graduation rate of 24%.Ask how many students who graduate go to graduate school and what kind they go to.
4. Ask about employment rate of graduates upon graduation, in three years, in five years. If they cannot tell you, pass on the school. They do not know what is happening with their graduates and probably do not care. You cannot make improvements to make your students more employable or help them get jobs if you do not know how they are doing and what kind of help they need to do better.
5. Ask to see the student orientation materials. Look for contact information to be listed , phone numbers, office addresses and emails, of at least two people in each department. Look for information on who to call for what if it is after regular office hours.
6. Ask about technology. Is there wi-fi everywhere on the campus? If not, it is not a priority and your student is going to be frustrated and inconvenienced and held back academically. Are there well staffed computer labs with working computers, printers and help available, either staff or student work study folks who are knowledgeable about technology and online research.
7. Ask about the library. Ask about the collections, number of books, periodicals subscribed to, available technology and hours. Are there computers and printers available to all students at hours when they are not necessarily in class or doing work study? A campus library should be open by 7AM and not be closed until at least 10PM and should be open seven days a week. Are textbooks used in classes routinely ordered for reserved use by students in the library?
8. Ask about accreditation. Are all programs accredited and by whom? Graduating with a degree from a college without accreditation is not going to help you much.
9. Ask about Communication. Call several offices. If the phones in more than one go unanswered pass on the institution. This is not necessarily confined to HBCUs but it does seem to be more common and more accepted that nobody is answering the phone. This can get crucial in the areas of registration and financial aid among other things. Is the website regularly updated with important dates and contact information for faculty and staff? Do they answer emails within 24 hours? Can you find who you need to talk to about a question easily? If they are not worried about helping you before hand they will sure as heck not worry about it once your child is already a paying customer. When you visit look to see how readily help is available to you to give you directions or provide you with information.  This would include signage, receptionists, information booths, clearly posted telephone numbers and websites. If you are a parent and have to jump through hoops to get information I promise you your student will have to go jump at least five times as high and as often.
10, Ask about campus safety. Each school is required to produce an annual report about incidents that happen on the campus. Read them. Ask about emergency services, medical care, clinics.

If you do your due diligence you will not get nasty surprises when your child is far from home and finds him or herself in some kind of crisis. There is much talk these days about how dreadful helicopter parents are, interfering, handling affairs that should be handled by their children, but at most schools and particularly at HBCUs you need to be in the mix as often as you feel necessary and you need to be both informed and persistent.

One of the disadvantages of many HBCU students is being a first generation student. The first in their immediate family to attend college. That means they lack some of the tips and tricks of the trade that those with a long history of college going have and can pass along. Which means that it is even more important for alumni and faculty and staff to provide them with the information they need to thrive academically and socially and physically and emotionally. It means we all have to reject the unfair and untrue idea that things are “ good enough” for our students.

1 Comment

Posted by on March 22, 2016 in Uncategorized


One response to “HBCUs: An open letter to parents considering sending your children to an HBCU

  1. Kevin Rose

    April 3, 2016 at 1:48 pm

    I was just watching an episode of “A Different World” on Hulu (yes, I know the creator of that show is accused of doing very bad things, but I still enjoy it), and then I read your post, and as a fellow Xenian who graduated from XHS in 1984 (I’m the person now living in Santa Barbara who has written to you before), I wanted to respond. I always enjoy your writing.

    Even though I am white, I think about race a lot – I also live in a small town, but one that attracts people from all over the world, so I am glad my kids are getting to know people from all over the world who speak different languages (my daughter, who is now 14, has a friend from Mexico City who taught me how to make corn tortillas – she had me purchase a bag of “Masa” from the local Hispanic market – what fun it was to make “Tacos de Lengua!” [Excuse my spelling if it is incorrect.]) I digress.

    I grew up knowing a number of people affiliated with Central State University (not many from Wilberforce U.), for they were members of the Episcopal Church in Xenia or the Presbyterian Church in Yellow Springs (my mother has served as organist at both churches although the Xenia church was our home church). From a very young age (I came along in 1965), we were good friends with a variety of people in those churches including several African American families who regularly visited our house. I must say that in those days, we were taught that “prejudice is wrong” and that “skin color doesn’t matter.” I dare say with that second statement, I am concerned that discredits entire cultures. That was Xenia – and I unfortunately knew too many people who had racist attitudes (like all the students in line opting out of the United Students assembly at XHS for Black History Month – a few people in that line that surprised me – I remember some of them to this day. I was shocked.)

    I was fortunate to know 2 professors from CSU in particular – both of them have died, and they were people that served as wonderful role models. One person was Zenobia Perry who taught music at CSU. She was a composer who lived to her 90’s with both an African American and Native American heritage, and always lending support (I will never forget that I played organ for a service at Christ Church when I was in High School and that service didn’t go so well – I cried after the service was over, and Zenobia and my father were there to comfort me. The next week, Zenobia said, “That was better!” Near the end of Zenobia’s life, my wife and I went to a concert of her music, so I’m glad my wife got to meet her.) Another professor was Senor Richard Williams. We just called him Senor since he taught Spanish. He was a jolly man always joking around. His wife Virginia worked at Wright State when I was a student there, and I would stop in her office and see her regularly.

    When I was picking out a college at the end of high school, a few people said I should have looked at Central State. I gave them a cursory look, but many people spoke of that university in disparaging terms – and that includes people of African American descent! One gentleman who had gone to the University of Dayton and it didn’t work out for him thrived at CSU because the professors cared! I did graduate from Wright State with a BS in Electrical Engineering degree in 1989. My master’s degree is in music, and from Indiana University in 1998. I work in both fields.

    Finally, this leads me to the emphasis on STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics). I strongly believe that to be successful in the STEM fields, you need to also have a creative field as well (I will not call it a “side field”). For me, that field is music. Others it might be painting, writing, or drama. You see, I am a design engineer – as such, I develop new products to be manufactured (my company does its manufacturing just outside of Santa Barbara). A design engineer is an artist – think Golden Gate Bridge. Think iPhone. Much of my work is not seen by the general public – for it goes on circuit boards that go inside of a box. I am also a ham (an amateur radio operator), and I think studying for an amateur radio license is a great introduction to electronics. My son is studying for his first license at the age of 10 – I am going to upgrade mine to a higher level. While he is studying for his exam, he gets to learn some math and some electronics. At the highest level, the “Amateur Extra”, you get into “imaginary numbers”. That is a concept I didn’t cover until I was a junior in high school. My son will probably master that within a year.

    I do so enjoy your column, in part because we both grew up in Xenia, and in part because you are not afraid to say it like it is. You know, I just turned 50 this year, and I have learned that I have a lot to learn. I now have to get ready so I can get to the church on time as I am the organist at First Presbyterian Church of Santa Barbara. A predecessor of mine is a formidable composer named Emma Lou Diemer, and I think if she and Zenobia Perry could have met, they would like each other.


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